Sunday , June 16 2024

Anthony Martial Keeps Manchester United Top Four Alive

As Leicester City and, to a lesser degree, Tottenham Hotspur provide all the entertainment, excitement and intrigue at the top of the Barclays Premier League, the rest continue to bumble along rather unconvincingly in their wake.

Here at Old Trafford today we witnessed a game between two teams with something still to play for. Manchester United remains, somehow, in with a sniff of a top four finish while Everton are seeking form and momentum ahead of an FA Cup semi-final.

Both teams have some fine players, particularly in forward areas, and coaches of experience and reputation. What they don’t have, however, is the ability to play consistently and so it was that we witnessed another one of those rather soulless, numbing afternoons that have become so familiar to those who visit Stretford on a regular basis.

United won the game courtesy of a lovely goal from the gifted Anthony Martial just before the hour. Before the game, meanwhile, the South Stand was named after Sir Bobby Charlton. Apart from that, and a Phil Jagielka header that struck the bar, there was almost nothing to remember.

At full-time, the United supporters finally raised a cheer worthy of the name. Whether that was because their team had won or because they could now all go home was hard to figure.

Certainly they have been very patient at United this season and they have had to be. For all the soporific football served up by Louis Van Gaal’s aimless team over the course of the last two seasons, United’s support has, by and large, managed to keep a lid on its simmering frustrations.

Maybe it’s because they don’t wish to make the team any worse. Maybe they just don’t want to admit – to themselves and to others – just how bad it has got. Whatever the case, United’s supporters have suffered in silence for too long now and here, for almost an hour at least, there was more to endure.

Analysing on TV, pundit Graeme Souness perhaps summed up things up best when he suggested being here today was like being present at a testimonial. No urgency or tempo to the play – from either side – and no engagement from the stands either.

From United’s point of view, it was strange. Their victory across town at Manchester City two weeks earlier was supposed to have returned Van Gaal’s team to the fringes of the race for the fourth Champions League place again. Yet, here they were today playing as though they were simply marking time. It was strange and not strange all at the same time.

This, after all, is a United team that rarely gets out of first gear during the first half in games at Old Trafford. With this game scoreless at the break, it represented the 16th time in 25 home games this season that United had reached the midway point without a goal. These are peculiar times indeed.

Everton, had they been sharper, could have taken advantage. They were the better team in the first half, their neat football requiring United to play on the break. With a little more cuteness in the final third, Everton certainly would have led.

Down the right side of Martinez’s 4-3-3- formation, young winger Gerard Deulofeu have Marcos Rojo a torrid time, drifting past him repetitively with ease. When Van Gaal took Rojo off at half-time, the South American was probably quite relieved.

Despite their possession, however, Everton did not really trouble David de Gea in the United goal. The Spaniard had to be sharp to rush from goal to clear from the feet of the onrushing Romelu Lukaku midway through the half while one or two other promising forward movements collapsed on the back of imperfect final balls.

With England’s John Stones back at the centre of the Everton defence, the visiting team looked reasonably secure against United’s impotent attack. Martial drove one shot across goal and wide with his right foot while Stones tackled the French forward with impeccable timing after a back heel from Marcus Rashford threatened to open Everton up.

That was about it during the first half, though, and it wasn’t until United finally broke with something approaching precision just before the hour that the game came properly to life.

Everton had once again dominated possession without creating anything in the minutes that followed half-time. A super ball from Leighton Baines found Lukaku with his back to goal seven yards out in the 48th minute and the Belgian looked as though he may score on the turn only for his shot to strike the standing leg of the attendant Daley Blind.

Blind had hitherto been United’s best player, the Dutchman’s reading of the game making much of what he did appear much easier than it actually was.

Soon after his intervention, meanwhile, United took the lead rather out of the blue. Michael Carrick’s long pass was controlled beautifully by the toe of Juan Mata and when his ball inside was backheeled in to the path of substitute Tim Fosu-Mensah the young defender crossed low to the far post where Martial was waiting.

It was a super goal quite out of keeping with what had gone before. Everton defender Seamus Coleman was perhaps not at his sharpest as Martial pounced but that shouldn’t detract from the quality of the goal.

So Everton were behind and their sense or irritation surfaced immediately as Jagielka advanced for a corner to thump a header against De Gea’s bar.

Everton’s need was now quite clear while United knew that a second goal would kill the game. Van Gaal’s team certainly improved a little after their goal and may have had a second as Stones dithered on a low cross from Blind before clearing hurriedly as red shirts closed in.

Roberto Martinez’s team simply could not find the cohesion they needed and when they did threaten to equalise with nine minutes left it came from a set piece. A corner from the left wasn’t cleared properly and when Jagielka volleyed towards goal De Gea was able to parry with recognisable conviction.

United then broke on Everton after another attack broke down and briefly had a five-on-one advantage. The ball, however, ended up out of play by the near touchline and that perhaps summed everything up.

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